When it comes to improving shoulder function and shoulder health, a key factor is having strong and efficient upper-back and lat muscles, the long muscles that run along the sides of the back.
Unfortunately, the lats and upper back can be difficult to target for many lifters, who often have a difficult time recruiting these muscles properly. Although a number of unique methods can help improve lat activation and enhance the muscle-mind connection in the upper back, one technique that I’ve found particularly useful is the rotational strap method.
Simply attach two standard wrist wraps/straps to a barbell, spaced approximately shoulder-width apart and use them for your handles while producing a rotational movement.
This technique can be applied to a number of Row and Lat Pulldown variations. Although you shouldn’t load these exercises with incredibly heavy weights, several unique benefits are conferred by the technique, providing not only for improving shoulder health and mechanics but also for stimulating functional strength and size in the upper torso.
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Allows your arms to rotate
This specific setup allows a natural rotational pulling motion to occur rather than the overly rigid grip you would typically find with a standard barbell setup. In essence, you use a fully pronated grip in the stretched position and gradually rotate to a fully supinated grip as you reach the fully contracted position. Besides being conducive for reinforcing proper and smooth scapulohumeral rhythm and centrated glenohumeral joint mechanics (locked in shoulder joint), the rotational movement is very effective for stimulating significant lat activation and growth
The reason for this is that the overhand or pronated position allows a greater lat stretch, while the underhand or supinated position produces a more forceful contraction in the lats at the end of the pull. This produces both mechanical tension and muscle damage (to a moderate degree) as well as a degree of metabolic stress and local occlusion. As a result, the stimulation and muscle-mind connection you receive to the lat muscles is significant, even though the load is relatively light. For those suffering with joint issues and overuse injuries, access to a lat exercise that allows you to use lighter therapeutic loads while simultaneously crushing the lats is a welcome bonus.
The lifting straps create instability
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Because you grip the hanging straps several inches or more away from the anchor point on the bar, the bar will be more susceptible to tilting, swaying, shifting or rotating. If you begin to pull more from one arm, allow one shoulder to deviate (i.e., excessive protraction or elevation), or you use excessive momentum, these will all be magnified and you will begin to lose control of the bar. In essence, you’ll be forced to use smooth, crisp, symmetrical and precise pulling mechanics to keep these locked in.
It crushes your grip
The rotating strap variation absolutely crushes your grip since you have to pinch the daylights out of the wrist straps to keep the handles from slipping out of your hands. If you need a Lat Pulldown variation that crushes your hands, grip and forearms, this one’s tough to beat. Ironically, this increased grip activation does not take away from upper-back recruitment but instead enhances it through improved shoulder stability (a common byproduct of increased grip activation through concurrent activation potentiation). You can also use towels to crush the grip even further, but unfortunately they can take away slightly from the rotational movement.
If you feel like grip strength is more of a limiting factor than your back during these variations, try pre-exhausting your lats immediately prior to the Pulldown by performing some form of pullover with kettlebells, dumbbells or a barbell. You can also use straight-arm Pulldowns on a cable system for increased tension in the contracted position. Regardless of the variation you choose, not only will this pre-exhaustion technique improve the muscle-mind connection in your upper back but your lats will most likely fatigue well before your grip does on the Row or Pulldown exercise.
If you’re looking for the ultimate challenge, combine this eccentric isometric Single-Leg RDL and the rotational strap method.
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If you can handle the level of difficulty, the stimulus to your entire backside, including the glutes, hamstrings, low back, lats, and upper back is difficult to replicate with any other movement. As shown in the video, you can also place a thick mat under your foot to increase instability and facilitate greater foot and ankle activation as well as overall proprioception. In order to successfully complete these, just be prepared to focus your mind like a Jedi master.